The Pianist, a new play at the George Street Playhouse, strikes deep personal chords with the playwright and the actor in the title role.
This “play with music,” on stage at George Street from September 26 through October 22, was written by Emily Mann, who for more than 20 years was the artistic director and playwright in residence at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
The drama is based on the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman who, alone among his family, survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw during World War II. The memoir was also the basis in 2002 for a highly-honored film by the same name, directed by Roman Polanski who, as a child, had survived the ghetto in Krakow, Poland.
Szpilman’s family, who peacefully lived immersed in arts and letters before the German invasion of 1939, were first confined to the ghetto in which the Nazis isolated the city’s Jews and then were set to the Treblinka death camp, where all of them perished. Szpilman avoided the transport only by the last-minute intervention of an acquaintance.
He remained in the ghetto for a time, doing heavy labor imposed by the Germans and secretly helping preparations for an uprising, and then he moved from one hiding place to the next until advancing allied forces pushed the Germans out of the city. After the war, he had a successful career in Poland as a composer and pianist. Daniel Donskoy, who plays Szpilman, is a trained pianist and performs several times during this play.
The theme of this play particularly resonates with Mann because most of her Jewish antecedents living in Poland at the time of the invasion were murdered by the Nazis. “They were all killed,” she said, and were probably buried in mass graves—who knows where?”
Donskoy also feels a visceral connection to the Nazis’ victims, and to all Jews who are subject to discrimination and violence, because of his experiences as a Jew living in the Soviet Union, his birthplace; Germany, where his family relocated when he was a child; Israel, where they later lived and, finally, London, where he lives now.
He noted that the Szpilmans thought of themselves as Polish, with no qualification, until the German invasion made their Jewish identity something apart from, and in opposition to, their nationality. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that gentile Poles, already infected with an historic anti-Semitism, turned against them too.
“It’s something that, as a kid, you don’t understand,” he said. “And then your parents explain to you what the Holocaust was, and then you really have to question your identity, because that means that eighty years ago, seventy years ago, in this country (Germany), I would have been killed for something I didn’t believe in. In my perception, being Jewish was a religion, and I’m an agnostic. Then it turns into turmoil, an identity crisis.”
He said that as an adult, living as an immigrant, he has been aware of the potential dichotomy Jews always face, “that you’re part of the group, but you’re also not.”
Donskoy described the experience of Jews who were stripped of their citizenship, personal belongings, and homes as “death before death.”
“I remember, he said, “when my grandma passed. You walk into the house, and all the items no longer have any relevance because they have no owner. They have no history.
“And it’s the same thing with that family. It’s death before death, because once you’re ousted from society, you have a societal death. None of that matters any more—none of that history, none of those relationships. They’re gone. It’s as if they never existed. The Nazis were very good at that.”
He said the Nazis made the Jews in Warsaw wear armbands, as portrayed in this play, so as to give the rest of society an explanation for whatever economic or social ills they were experiencing.
“It was to show everyone that these were Jews. Don’t touch them, making those persons the dirty rats on the street. The moment you give people somebody to blame, you are absolved.”
Although many Poles collaborated with the Nazis in decimating the Jewish population in Poland, some resisted the Germans and fought back, as this play relates. Some took big chances by helping Jews hide from the Nazis—and that included Szpilman, who darted from one safe house to another, and was even spared by a German officer who was disgusted with his country’s behavior.
“He could not have survived,” Mann said, “if not for his Polish friends. They put their lives on the line to save as many as they could. They have to be applauded for their courage. We all hope we would have been as brave as the people who helped the Jews, but until you’re there, you don’t know.”
Emily Mann, photo by Matt Pilsner
Mann and Donskoy both called attention to the timely nature of this production in light of rising extreme rhetoric and violence, including resurging antisemitism, in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
“It’s a very important time to see this story and understand how we must stand up to fascism or it will happen again,” Mann said.
“The war in Ukraine brings it home. Let a fascist thug take a little, and he will want more. I hope we don’t give up our support for Ukraine and of anti-Putin forces in Europe. He won’t stop at Ukraine.”
Mann also saw a resonance between the treatment of Jews during Holocaust, their domestic and economic lives abruptly taken away, and the plight of immigrants trying to escape from political oppression and economic distress.
“Six months ago,” she said, “you had a job and a family life, and your children were in school, and all of a sudden, you’re on a border with no water and no food.
“I hope there’s compassion for their plight. This could be you. It’s happening now, and it will happen again if we are not vigilant.”
The Pianist is presented by George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (11 Livingston Avenue) in New Brunswick, NJ from September 26 — October 22, 2023. Ticket prices range from $25 to $70. Click here for ticket information.